Alex Zwerdling

  • The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Theory by Patrick Parrinder
    Harvester, 225 pp, £28.50, April 1987, ISBN 0 7108 1129 2

When the history of late 20th-century literary culture comes to be written, the extraordinary vogue of metatheoretical works will surely require explanation. What can account for the obsessive concern with theory in cultural commentary over the last twenty years? Why has methodological self-consciousness become a more pressing issue for literary critics than the traditional labour of elucidating literary works? Why are names like Barthes, Derrida, Benjamin, Foucault, Lukacs, Kristeva, Althusser, Lacan, Habermas, Bloom, Jameson, invested with the kind of glamour that literary intellectuals used to accord only to the great imaginative writers of their own time? Why have these masters produced so many eager disciples? Why has Literary Theory (thus capitalised) become an independent field rather than a serviceable set of working assumptions that enables critical commentary?

In Patrick Parrinder’s account of this major change in contemporary culture, the theorist is seen as a presumptuous upstart who has forgotten his place. The traditional role of the critic is to act as middleman between author and reader – ‘making sense’ of difficult or elusive novels, poems and plays, explaining, evaluating, showing the significance of. In this older dispensation, a firm pecking order is in place: the major author, the great work, are clearly more important than the critical commentator, and the subservient critic accepts this position with becoming modesty, a sense that it is not only inevitable but fitting. In Parrinder’s words, ‘the critic or theorist plays a secondary or subordinate role, as expositor, advocate, and archivist of the poet’s thoughts. There is an understood hierarchy.’ It is precisely this traditional hierarchy that the more important theorists have challenged. The critical commentator is no longer the servant of the imaginative writer. As Roland Barthes has put it, there is a need to free the critic from the role of ‘judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder’. The Author – in the sense of the ultimate authority on the works he has produced – is dead, and the reader is at last liberated from the unrewarding labour of construing the intended meaning of his texts.

The resulting situation, for Parrinder, is a version of the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice – the theorist out of control, inundating the literary workshop: ‘Theory is all-devouring, consuming theories, anti-theories and non-theories alike. Polemics against Theory [like his own, as he knows] are themselves a species of theory.’ The appearance of newly fashionable theorists becomes a seasonal event and calls for constant ideological accommodation or self-justification among established ones. The inevitable comparisons with the party line and couturier dictators are made by the dissenters. This hectic intellectual atmosphere creates a race of anxious disciples desperate to keep up. For Parrinder, the typical case is that of the ‘fleet-footed pamphleteer’ Terry Eagleton, the impact of whose work ‘has been due to the adventurism of a critic swiftly assimilating, and memorably responding to, wave after wave of neo-Marxist theory. As major influences, Sartre, Williams, Lukacs, Goldmann, Anderson, Althusser, Macherey, Benjamin, Derrida and the feminist movement have followed one another in quick succession.’

Literary theory, in this view, has become a self-contained preserve for intellectuals who talk to each other while largely ignoring the imaginative writers of their own time. The task of understanding the work of the more challenging new poets, novelists and playwrights is evaded entirely or relegated to journalists. Criticism and literary creation are less and less in touch with each other. For Parrinder, this represents a betrayal of the best traditions of critical commentary. His model is the sort of literary movement (Romanticism and Modernism are obvious examples) in which ‘there was an alliance between artistic innovation and avant-garde criticism and polemic,’ an ‘intimacy between critical and creative discourse’. The absence of such an alliance has produced ‘a “theoretical revolution” proclaimed by literary scholars most of whom seem to work in an artistic vacuum’. The close connection between theory and practice that characterised the early days of Modernism and which produced not only classic explanatory essays by the writers themselves – Eliot, Pound, Woolf and others – but also such helpful early guides to modern writing as Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry or Wilson’s Axel’s Castle has been broken. The writers themselves remain reticent and the literary theorists largely indifferent. (It might be noted in passing that such a description hardly characterises the French literary scene.)

Parrinder’s critique of this intellectual climate takes two forms: an attack on the pretensions of the metatheorists, and an attempt to produce an analytic and evaluative account of some contemporary imaginative writing of the sort the theorists have failed to provide. The book divides neatly into two parts, the first commenting on theory, the second on recent British fiction. He brings to these tasks a variety of impressive talents. He is a vigorous and witty polemicist with a fine ear for the absurdities and pretensions of the critical mode he analyses. He notes, for example, that the habitual use of ‘interrogating’ and ‘putting in question’ as verbs used to characterise deconstructive procedures should remind us that in French ‘one of the meanings of mettre quelqu’un à la question is “to torture someone”.’ One of Marcuse’s early essays is described as ‘the prototype of all those recent theoretical works in which the pretensions of intelligence and culture to Olympian authority are denounced by a cultivated intellectual in a tone of still more peremptory Olympian authority.’ He can follow a complex critical argument step by step, expose its logical contradictions and its self-serving rhetoric, present forceful counter-arguments or recall neglected facts, show to what absurdities a given position can lead if followed to its inevitable conclusion: Furthermore, his critique is not narrowly focused but informed by a broad familiarity with the whole tradition of aesthetic commentary from Plato to the present day – a culture he wears lightly but uses to good effect.

Parrinder’s attack on ‘the failure of theory’ is also supported by a clear sense of a desirable alternative to the present dispensation. One of his models is Raymond Williams, whose career is the subject of two discerning chapters in the book. His ideal critic still believes in ‘common sense’, in the task of facilitating the reader’s entry to difficult literary works, in the priority of experience over language (rather than the Saussurean reverse), in the possibility of using mimetic standards to evaluate the success of literary experiments, in the expansion of the canon to include works that illuminate ways of life not previously accounted for, in Arnoldian disinterestedness as an ideal for his own commentary, in an open, pluralistic critical debate rather than the ideological closed shop that threatens to end it. These are the standards of the traditional liberal ‘free intelligence’ which Orwell (in his essay on Dickens) described as ‘a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls’.

Despite the attractiveness of this ideal when described in such terms, however, the fact is that in both Europe and America it has fallen into decline. In political terms, it would be more accurate to announce the ‘triumph of theory’ than its failure. Apprentice literary critics have been trained to label themselves according to their chosen theoretical model, and to spend more time worrying about their hermeneutic principles than about what used to be called their field of specialisation. Graduate seminars in Theory are likely to be packed and eagerly followed, while those in the traditional areas of literary study languish, or are dutifully attended because something called ‘coverage’ is still demanded by the troglodytes in control. Major theorists have groupies. Their latest essays are read immediately rather than eventually and become the focus of passionate debate. To fall a year or two behind turns one into a sort of Rip van Winkle.

Yet it is one thing to be sarcastic about such an intellectual atmosphere, and quite another to understand it. What forces in our cultural and institutional life have produced these conditions? Why would many serious young intellectuals rather read the most recent modification of reception theory than the latest work of Naipaul or Heaney? Parrinder does not even try to answer such questions because he is so clearly on the other team. He needs to defend his own critical principles and to attack the opposition; and while this strategy allows him to score a number of palpable hits it does not produce much light. Perhaps only a non-combatant or some cultural historian of the next generation not caught in the crossfire of the present will have the necessary detachment to understand the explosion of theory without responding with anxiety and the need to correct its excesses. Part One of The Failure of Theory is for the most part a conservative attack on the hegemonic pretensions of metatheoretical discourse rather than a serious attempt to grasp the nature of its appeal to a generation of readers not likely, after all, to be more contemptible than the previous generations have been.

Part Two is Parrinder’s attempt to make sense of contemporary British fiction. Here he takes on the traditional task of trying to characterise and evaluate the imaginative writing of the age in a series of essays on some of the novelists who have come to prominence since the Fifties: B.S. Johnson, Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess, V.S. Naipaul. The list is not intended to identify a new pantheon, nor meant to be exclusive. Most of the essays were occasional pieces written over the last decade. But they do, individually and collectively, allow Parrinder to elucidate the fiction of writers whose work has not yet been buried under an avalanche of commentary. The case for the value of traditional expository criticism can perhaps be made as effectively by example as by writing polemics against those who refuse to accept its limitations.

Although most of the chapters in Part Two survey the career of a particular contemporary novelist, there is also an attempt to see the work of all these writers as examples of what Parrinder takes to be ‘the characteristic style of our age’. He calls it an ‘Age of Fantasy’ and thinks of that label as more satisfactory than the merely chronological ‘Post-Modernism’ because the tendency of contemporary fiction ‘is so overwhelmingly towards the fantastic’. The departure from classic realism takes many forms – seemingly arbitrary narratives, free-floating inventions and experiments, utopian and dystopian fables, versions of Gothic in which plausibility is casually abandoned, Science Fiction, what one might call psycho-supernatural tales in which what happens may or may not be the product of an overheated imagination. These tendencies in serious fiction seem to mirror the escapist tendencies in popular entertainment, so one of the tasks Parrinder sets himself is to find criteria ‘according to which some escapes are more acceptable than others – whether on grounds of ethics, politics, psychology, aesthetics, or even linguistics’.

The ‘acceptable’ fantasists turn out to be those writers whose roots remain in realistic fiction but whose work extends the province of realism into the realm of visionary experience. Parrinder’s chapter on Doris Lessing is an example. Her career is frequently divided into the ‘realistic’ phase dominated by the Children of Violence sequence and the later ‘space fiction’ series collectively called Canopus in Argos: Archives. Parrinder’s revisionist argument notes the presence of fantastic elements in Lessing’s work from the first and makes a plausible case for the amalgamation of realism and what he calls ‘cosmic mysticism’ in all of her novels, though obviously the proportions in each differ considerably. He not only reveals the essential coherence of Lessing’s vision but illuminates such difficult transitional texts as Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Four-Gated City and Memoirs of a Survivor, all of which seem to begin in one language and continue in another. Though Lessing has called 19th-century realism ‘the highest form of prose writing’, she has clearly never accepted its limits as final. She has needed the greater freedom of fantasy to record her sense of an age gone berserk. Yet despite her excursions into the realm of the preter- and supernatural, she remains a serious writer whose interests are fundamentally socio-political and psychological. There is no danger that her work will be mistaken for the easy escapism of popular entertainment, if only because her vision is finally more tragic than reassuring.

These are the standards by which Parrinder judges the use of fantasy in contemporary fiction. Muriel Spark’s moral fables all ‘have elements of the Gothic thriller and the supernatural fantasy’ embedded in their ‘surface verisimilitude’; she needs fantasy as well as realism to show us ‘the vanity, hollowness and deadness of the world in which we live’. Naipaul’s Guerrillas is based on real incidents in Trinidad which he describes elsewhere in non-fictional form, but the novel which grew out of the historical actuality shows that Naipaul ‘has fantasised about the events and has used his fantasy to explore the revelatory relations of the real and the fantastic. If the result is to be classed as fictional “realism” then it is the realistic fiction of a fantasy age.’

In such ways, Parrinder incorporates the elements of what some have taken to be an ultimate challenge to realism into the older (and more respectable) literary tradition. The new vogue of fantasy has not forced him to alter his principles of evaluation. He insists, for example, that his use of ‘rational and mimetic standards in judging Lessing’s writings (including her experimental and fantasy fiction) employ the only critical framework which can survive her latest change of direction’. And he concludes that Guerrillas ‘stands or falls by its mimetic evocation of the Aristotelian processes of probability and necessity’. Such judgments suggest a rearguard action. They identify and praise the realistic components of fantasy-fiction and select for canonisation those writers who have maintained the strongest ties to the traditional realistic novel. Parrinder is a conservative critic accommodating a potentially challenging new dispensation to familiar standards rather than an investigator trying to find the new theoretical basis for some of the more disturbing departures from precedence to be found in contemporary fiction.

These values also account for the rather parochial choice of novelists in Part Two. All are British, and none is really among the writers associated with the more radical forms of ‘Post-Modernism’. John Fowles and Iris Murdoch are not discussed. Parrinder himself notes that ‘postmodernists such as Pynchon, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Barth and Barthelme’ are most usefully understood in relation to the revival of fantasy: but that is virtually the last we hear of them in his book. And such names as Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Calvino, Landolfi or Kundera are never even mentioned. The fact is that the ‘Age of Fantasy’ is an international literary movement and that many experimental fiction writers of the last thirty years have not so much searched for ways of melding fantasy and realism as offered a fundamental challenge to the language and authority of the realistic novel. John Barth in the Seventies proclaimed that he welcomed the trend to what Borges had called ‘irrealism’ because ‘unlike those critics who regard realism as what literature has been aiming at all along, I tend to regard it as a kind of aberration in the history of literature.’

That is of course an extreme statement. But it underlines a more thoroughgoing dissatisfaction with tradition among some contemporary novelists who would have no use for Parrinder’s cautious praise of the more readily acceptable forms of fantasy. As accounts of a number of interesting individual careers, the chapters in Part Two of The Failure of Theory are generally of high quality, particularly those on Lessing and Naipaul. They are based on a familiarity with the writer’s whole oeuvre and their analyses of individual works are often illuminating. But as an attempt to formulate an aesthetics of fantasy for contemporary fiction the enterprise seems doomed from the start. The choice of novelists is not inclusive enough and is based on too strong a resistance to the more challenging forms of experimental writing.

There is a rich vein of contemporary fiction which can be classified as fantasy but simply cannot be judged by mimetic standards or ‘the Aristotelian processes of probability and necessity’. It is most often called ‘metafiction’, though none of the names used for it has really become generally accepted. It tends to deliberate imaginative excess; to extreme self-consciousness and parody in tone and technique; to randomness and absurdity in depicted action; to the subhumanising of character. The god of its creation is not Joyce’s aloof and indifferent deity paring his fingernails but a more actively mocking, cynical, even cruel manipulator of man’s fate. Its literary precursors are Kafka and Beckett. The apparent nihilism and pervasive sense of futility of this vision is undercut by its comic style, as though Marx’s dictum about tragic history repeating itself as farce had been fully understood and accepted with a shrug of the shoulders. Such forms of fictional fantasy are disturbing because they seem to deny the possibility of dignified and significant action. They suggest an aleatory, post-humanist dispensation in which nothing that happens could conceivably matter.

To try and account for the pervasiveness of this sort of fiction (and to formulate the standards by which its successes and failures might be measured) is far from easy. Yet it seems to me as essential to understanding the cultural climate of our time as is the task of accounting for the vogue of metatheory. The two movements have much in common. In both cases, a familiar and highly regarded way of doing things – ‘making sense’ of literary works, writing realistic fiction – is under attack. The spirit of revolt is frequently mocking, playful, anti-authoritarian yet paradoxically authoritative. It breathes the air of scepticism and imaginative freedom and treats all forms of writing as performance rather than expression. It claims the Author is dead yet gives the writer unprecedented licence. Such a way of looking at the world is new enough to demand to be understood and judged by new standards. Parrinder’s book idealises an ‘alliance between artistic innovation and avant-garde criticism and polemic’, but does not provide it for the more innovative writing of the present. Despite his wit, intelligence and sympathetic grasp of writers like Williams, Lessing and Naipaul, his habits of mind are finally too censorious and his standards for both criticism and fiction too firmly rooted in tradition to absorb the shock of the new.